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Trip 25

Part 4

Wednesday morning after a hearty Canteen breakfast, I set out east on the Clear Creek Trail. It was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps and initially was used by mules coming up from Phantom Ranch, but now is for hikers only.

Halfway up to the Tonto Platform is Phantom Overlook.

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The CCC’s stone bench and other nifty trail work.

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Phantom Ranch from Phantom Overlook.

Half a mile later, at this bend in the trail, you get the first view of the Colorado River looking upstream.

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The trail continues the long climb up to the Tonto Platform. The Park Service claims to perform regular maintenance up there, but it appears to be minimal.

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After a few more bends of the trail, you get this awesome downstream view. Ordinarily, I avoid the word awesome, but in this case, it fits.

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The Black Bridge (lower left) is where the mules cross the river.

The golden cottonwoods at the bend in the river mark the mouth of Bright Angel Creek. Phantom Ranch is along Bright Angel Creek half a mile upstream.

For scale, consider this:

– The Tonto Platform on the south (left) side of the river — the prominent ledge halfway up — is half a vertical mile above the Colorado.

– The South Rim, the highest point in the distance, is a full vertical mile above the river.

A closer view:

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Look close, and you can see the Silver Bridge, where most hikers cross the river. It’s in the shadow just before the Colorado disappears around the last bend.

Three miles from Phantom Ranch, you arrive at what I consider one of the grandest sights in Grand Canyon: the view looking up at Zoroaster Temple.

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I know these things are subjective, but I think Zoro is a phenomenal landform. It’s beautiful and majestic, with amazing symmetry.

And it becomes even more impressive when you are standing close, the arms looming on both sides.

Magical.

Many people observe that being at Grand Canyon is like a religious experience. I certainly see it that way.

As it happens, so does Bob Dylan. These are the closing lines from Dylan’s “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” from 1963:

You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital
You’ll find God in the church of your choice
You’ll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital

And though it’s only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You’ll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown

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Early Thursday morning, the mule riders left Phantom Ranch and returned to the South Rim via the South Kaibab Trail. Starting out, we still had pleasant, shirt-sleeves weather.

But about halfway to the rim, that abruptly changed. Dark clouds rolled in, the wind picked up, the temperature dropped. The coats, gloves, and earmuffs came out. It was the beginning of a storm that would leave Northern Arizona and most of New Mexico in the deep freeze for the next week.

The South Kaibab is an exposed, ridgeline trail, and, especially near the rim, the wind can be brutal. For the last mile of the ride, we sat hunched in our saddles, shivering in an icy, 40-mph wind.

I could feel Twinkie leaning, leaning, leaning against it. I did my best not to interfere.

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So far, I have no specific plans for another trip to Grand Canyon, but the odds are pretty good I’ll go again.

Yes, I do believe I’ll go again.

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Trip 25

Part 3

So, there I was, newly arrived at Phantom Ranch and gloriously happy — joyful, ecstatic, stoked, take your pick — to be there.

Mostly, my thoughts were on the following day, when I planned to hike out the Clear Creek Trail for the day. The hike would be a bit strenuous, a climb of 1,500 feet up to the Tonto Platform and a distance of six miles round-trip, but the views make it worthwhile.

After a steak dinner at the Canteen, I walked down to the boat beach and the mouth of Bright Angel Creek. By the time I got back, night had fallen.

At 8:00 PM, the Canteen reopened, and I staked out one corner of a quiet table. For the next hour, I nursed another beer and leafed through some books from the library. The Canteen has a wall of books devoted to Grand Canyon history and geology.

At 9:00 PM, I said goodnight and headed back to my cabin; I didn’t want to miss the arrival of the full moon. I had experienced a full moon at Phantom before, so I knew what to expect.

To prepare for the moment, I got comfortable on the bench in front of the cabin, opened the container of brandy I had brought along in my saddlebag, and poured two fingers’ worth into a plastic cup. I commenced to sipping and waiting.

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My cabin.

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The view toward the Canteen.

Thanks to a few strategic streetlights and light from the canteen, I could see my surroundings clearly.  Now and then, guests walked by on the main path 20 yards away, headlamps flickering through the foliage. Overhead, the east wall of Bright Angel Canyon was growing steadily brighter as moonrise approached.

In the spirit of the moment, I drank a toast to the River Gods, and whatever other deities might be listening, and I thanked them for my good fortune.

I toasted Phantom Ranch and thanked it for years of incredible memories.

I toasted Twinkie, who had been so calm and cooperative during the morning ride. While I spent Wednesday hiking, Twinkie would be rewarded with the day off.

By the time I toasted Grand Canyon in its entirety, the brandy and the emotion caught up with me, and tears came to my eyes.

Dammit, I thought, You never used to cry at anything. Now look at you.

But the tears flowed because, at that moment, I was blissfully content.

Then, just in time to keep me weeping like a fool, the Moon sprung from behind the rim. Phantom Ranch was bathed in a brilliant, most sublime light.

I gasped, leapt to my feet, and took photos, all forgettable.

As I returned to the bench with a sigh of satisfaction, a slight movement on the right side of the path caught my attention. I peered intently at the spot.

Seconds later, barely 10 yards away, a fox emerged soundlessly from the undergrowth. He paused on the path, looked carefully around, and spotted me.

My presence didn’t seem to concern him. He studied me calmly for a moment and continued on his way.

I blinked in disbelief. The incident was almost surreal. Had I imagined it?

Of course not. A passing fox just looked you in the eye.

Blubbering anew, I raised my cup and toasted the fox.

The next morning at breakfast, I told a staff member about the encounter. I knew ringtail cats live around Phantom Ranch, and you spot them occasionally, but I wasn’t aware of a fox population.

Yes, she said, foxes do reside at Phantom. What I saw was a gray fox. They’re quiet, harmless, and fairly common. The Park Service is especially fond of them, she noted, because they hold down the rodent population.

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In my next and final Trip 25 post, my hike along the Clear Creek Trail.

 

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Trip 25

Part 2

On Tuesday at 7:00 AM, we mule riders assembled at the corral at the top of Bright Angel Trail. The wranglers gave us instructions, assigned us a mule, and adjusted our gear. We were ready for the trip to the bottom of Grand Canyon.

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At 7:30 AM, we started the 10-mile ride to Phantom Ranch.

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The most important bit of advice from the wranglers: trust your mule.

For practically the entire trip, they told us, you’ll be riding uncomfortably close to the edge. Trust your mule. Avoid the temptation to lean away from the edge; doing so will cause the mule to compensate and lean toward it.

In case you’re wondering, mules are not the “easy way” into Grand Canyon. Unless you’re a seasoned rider, a mule trip is almost as strenuous as hiking.

Riding uses muscles you didn’t know were there. And, especially on the trip down, it isn’t easy to stay in the saddle. You aren’t lashed down, and nothing says you can’t go flying over the handlebars.

But I hung on, and I trusted my mule, and five hours later, we arrived.

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With a groan, I climbed down from my faithful steed, Twinkie.

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I dropped off my gear at my cabin (at right below, across from the Canteen).

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After a celebratory beer, I spent the rest of the afternoon taking photos.

When we left South Rim that morning, the temp was 35 degrees. At Phantom Ranch, it was 72, calm, and sunny.

That’s fairly typical of the Canyon floor in winter, because all that rock collects and radiates the heat of the sun.

This also explains why summer nights at Phantom sometimes remain above 100 degrees.

Within an hour, the muscles in my legs had recovered from being astride a mule for half a day. I wasn’t wincing and hobbling around any longer, and I was ready to explore.

For starters, I stopped at the mule corral and said hello to Twinkie.

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In Part 3, I drink a toast to multiple deities under the light of a full moon.

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Trip 25

Part 1

When I started this blog in 2009, among the first stories I posted was Bliss, a recollection from my childhood about the magic of waking up at the beach and savoring the sounds, sights, and smells of the moment.

Well, last month I was blessed with a similar magic moment, and it happened, fittingly, at Grand Canyon, my go-to vacation spot for lo these many years.

Ah, Grand Canyon. I certainly have a thing for the place. My December trip was visit #25.

My family and friends see this as something of an obsession — harmless and amusing, but a bit irrational.

Not really. I simply discovered a place that fascinates me, pleases me, speaks to me — and I’m in the process of exploring it.

Every trip has been unique. Carefully planned to be that way. It hasn’t been like, say, going to the Lincoln Memorial or the Bronx Zoo 25 times.

Allow me to elaborate.

Trip #1 in 1994 was a one-week raft trip down the Colorado River. Trip #2 in 1995 was a two-week raft trip.

Trip #3 in early 1996 was a hike to Phantom Ranch, the guest ranch/lodge on the floor of the Canyon. Trip #4 in late 1996 was a hike from North Rim to South Rim.

Over the years, I’ve hiked in Havasu Canyon and Paria Canyon. I’ve camped twice at Toroweap in the remote western region. I’ve taken four river trips and four mule trips. I’ve backpacked on the Tonto Platform. I’ve ventured off-trail in some crazy places.

I’ve hiked the Canyon with my sons, separately and together. I’ve gone rim-to-rim twice. During the course of all that, I’ve stayed at or passed through Phantom Ranch, one of the most terrific places on earth, 14 times.

And no two of those trips were alike. None.

Long ago, I promised myself that when the thrill is gone, I’ll be done with the place. If the day comes when I don’t get butterflies about going, or if the hikes and the scenery seem repetitious, or if I stand at South Rim contemplating Cheops Pyramid or Zoroaster Temple and my heart isn’t in my throat, I won’t go back.

But, having just returned from there, I can report that the thrill is not gone. Nothing about it was ho-hum or repetitious. I’m still exhilarated by the sheer grandness of Grand Canyon.

My December trip was built around a mule ride to Phantom Ranch. I booked the trip in winter because in the off-season, you’re allowed to stay two nights. That gives you an extra day to hike, explore, and enjoy the Grand Canyon vibe.

As a further incentive, mule riders stay in private cabins — unlike hikers, who either stay at the campground or in one of the dormitories (two dorms for men, two for women, 10 beds per dorm).

To fully appreciate this story, you need to know a few things about Phantom Ranch and how it functions.

The place is, quite literally, a desert oasis. It’s rustic, and it requires genuine effort to reach, but it’s perfectly comfortable once you get there.

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Phantom Ranch consists of a campground, cabins and dorms for the staff and guests, the Canteen where meals are served, a ranger station, mule corrals, a heliport, a boat beach for river rafters, and assorted support facilities (water treatment plant, laundry, maintenance sheds, and so on).

The facility was built in 1922 where Bright Angel Creek meets the Colorado River. The Kaibab Trail, which runs from North Rim to South Rim, passes through the spot.

At any given time, the population at Phantom is about 100 people, give or take.

The center of activity is the Canteen, which serves breakfast and supper, provides box lunches for the hikers, and sells supplies, snacks, and souvenirs.

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Nightly from 8:00 PM to 10:00 PM, it becomes your friendly neighborhood tavern.

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So, there you have it. In Part 2, my trip gets underway with a mule ride down the Bright Angel Trail to Phantom Ranch.

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Mr. Dynamite

Last month, I spent a few days in Augusta, Georgia, exploring the city. I went simply out of curiosity. I knew very little about the place.

We Smiths, you see, are from Savannah, and we always dismissed Augusta as that other cotton town upstream on the Savannah River.

Silly us. As I discovered, Augusta is an interesting and attractive place.

But it wasn’t always thus. In the decades after World War II, the city had become seedy and rundown — bedeviled by trash, brothels, strip clubs, and the shells of empty mills and factories. Finally, in the 1980s, the city fathers acted.

Augusta invested heavily in cleaning up and modernizing the riverfront and the downtown district. Former factory buildings became condos. The worst of the strip clubs were zoned out of business. The brothels, I assume, went underground.

Augusta built Riverwalk, a beautiful city park that runs for a dozen blocks atop the levee and along the river.

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An art museum was built at one end of Riverwalk, a history museum at the other. Most of the downtown streets were landscaped and prettified.

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The key to understanding Augusta is geography. The city was built at the “fall line,” where the Piedmont Plateau drops down to the Coastal Plain. This is the spot where upstream navigation on the Savannah River ends.

At the history museum, you learn that Augusta’s economy was founded on tobacco and later thrived on cotton and textiles.

You learn about the construction in 1845 of the Augusta Canal, which starts at the fall line and flows south through the city. For years, the canal generated power for factories.

And, no surprise, a large part of the history museum is devoted to the life and career of Augusta luminary James Brown.

Yes, that James Brown. The Godfather of Soul. The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business. Mr. Dynamite.

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Brown was born into poverty across the river in South Carolina in 1933. When he was five, he and his family moved to Augusta, where they lived in a brothel run by his aunt.

Brown had a tough childhood, and he was incarcerated by age 16. But he prevailed. And even though life knocked him around at regular intervals, he went on to gain fame and fortune in true Horatio Alger style.

Today, one of Augusta’s major downtown streets is James Brown Boulevard. The civic center complex is James Brown Arena. Nearby, in James Brown Plaza, is a life-size bronze statue of Brown at the microphone, wearing his signature cape.

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The plaza is a favorite spot for tourist photos.

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As it happens, the statue is across the street from K’s Buffalo Wings, where I had stopped for lunch. I emerged from K’s, wiping hot sauce from my beard while trying not to drop my lemonade, and walked over to the plaza.

The spot was shady, but hot, this being Augusta in June. Occupying the benches around the statue were half a dozen black guys ranging in age from 20s to 60s. Two were eating lunch, a few were chatting, one was reading. They all looked up as I approached, but quickly lost interest.

At the time, I was the only tourist in the plaza. I took photos of the statue from various angles, trying to avoid getting people and traffic in the shots. It wasn’t easy.

Finally, a voice behind me said, “No offense, man, but you don’t look like a James Brown fan.”

I turned around. It was a young man in his mid-20s, holding a takeout box of K’s chicken wings. He was neatly dressed, probably an office worker on his lunch hour.

“Well, I’m not a huge fan,” I said, “But he really had talent. He was quite an entertainer. I saw him at a concert in Macon once, back in the 60s. ”

“For real? You saw James Brown back when he was young?”

“Yeah, I was in college in Athens, and a few of us drove to Macon to see him. I was in my teens. He was about 30, I guess. Really in his prime. He was amazing.”

The young man shook his head in wonder. “I saw him on stage a few times before he died. But he was pretty old, you know? Not James Brown like in the old days.”

“I don’t remember too much about the concert,” I said. “It was so long ago. But he was a trip — so much energy. Dancin’, struttin’, and sweatin’. One guy followed him around the stage to wipe his brow.”

The young man grinned. “Yeah, yeah, the cape routine. He falls to his knees, he’s exhausted, and they put the cape around his shoulders.”

“That’s it.”

He chuckled. “Man, I wish I coulda seen him in those days. I sure do.”

“If you’d seen him, you’d be old like me. You don’t wish that.”

“No, but I sure envy you seein’ him.”

The conversation stalled. Then the young man asked, “You from around here?”

“I live over by Athens. I just came to see a little of James Brown’s Augusta.”

“Well, you enjoy. Nice talkin’ to you, man.”

He returned to his lunch. I walked back to my car.

———–

Here is the man himself, live in 1964, performing the cape routine.

 

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The Rio Grande begins in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado and flows south through New Mexico, dividing the state neatly in half. From El Paso onward to the Gulf, the river is the border between Texas and Mexico.

About 85 miles north of El Paso, where the Rio Grande passes through the broad, flat Rincon Valley, is the little town of Hatch, New Mexico.

I love Hatch. Dearly love it. I’ve been there twice, most recently on my drive home from Arizona earlier this month.

To me, the appeal is the town’s fun, friendly vibe — due mainly to the charming small operations in town that grow, harvest, process, and sell the product for which Hatch is renowned: chile peppers.

Hatch bills itself as the Chile Capitol of the World. The valley surrounding the town is dotted with numerous chile farms — acre after acre of hardy chile plants lovingly irrigated with water from the Rio Grande.

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You’ll notice that I use the term chile, not chili. Hatch is 90 percent Hispanic (or Latino; I never know which is proper), so chile, the Spanish name of the pepper, is considered correct.

No known connection to the nation of Chile in South America.

The word chili, I learned, is an American bastardization. A discerning person should use the word chili to refer to the restaurant chain and chili con carne, but nothing else.

For reasons that escape a journalism major like me, chiles thrive in the climate and soil around Hatch.

The local farms grow many varieties of the plant, each variety having a known degree of heat. Thus, when the chiles are processed into, say, chile powder, the packages can be labeled as mild, medium, hot, extra hot, or ¡ay, caramba!

Unavoidably, Hatch is a tourist town. Most of the processing operations I’ve seen are fronted by a retail store, where you can buy not only fresh, frozen, dried, and preserved chile products, but also chile-related souvenirs, Hatch t-shirts, and, usually, an assortment of Mexican pottery.

But somehow, the businesses haven’t morphed into tourist traps. I know of only one shop where the prices are high and the atmosphere is a bit mercenary. The rest are simple, casual, friendly places with reasonable prices. What’s not to like?

But enough blather. Here are some photos.

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Lastly, a bonus: interesting facts about peppers…

— Peppers are flowering plants from the nightshade family. They are cousins to the tomato, potato, and eggplant.

— Peppers fall into one of three categories: bell peppers, sweet peppers, hot peppers.

— Green peppers have been harvested early, before they’ve ripened to yellow, then orange, then red.

— Red peppers have been on the vine longest and are the most nutritious. A red pepper can have 10 times more beta-carotene and almost twice the vitamin C of a green pepper.

— Peppers also are loaded with potassium, magnesium, iron, and B vitamins.

— Hot peppers get their heat from the chemical capsaicin, which triggers the pain receptors in your mouth.

— The degree of heat depends on the pepper’s rating on the “Scoville scale,” which assigns each variety of pepper a rating in Scoville Heat Units (SHU).

— At the bottom of the Scoville scale are bell peppers, with zero SHU. Banana peppers and cherry peppers barely register, with a few hundred SHU.

— By contrast, Serrano peppers are rated at 10,000-23,000 SHU, and jalapeños are rated at 1,000-4,000 SHU.

— The hottest pepper in the world, according to Guinness World Records, is the Carolina Reaper, with an astounding 1,569,300 SHU. The Reaper was cultivated by the Puckerbutt Pepper Company of Fort Mill, South Carolina.

— India is the world’s largest producer, consumer, and exporter of chile peppers. But the citizens of Hatch probably pretend not to know about that.

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Stuffed Hatch green chiles with cilantro-yogurt sauce. ¡Se ve delicioso!

 

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Highlight 1 — Wrapping Material

On day four of my recent road trip to Grand Canyon, I pulled into the parking lot of a dilapidated antique store in Clarendon, Texas. I needed to take a rest break and walk around a bit.

The place was old and shabby and packed with a jumble of merchandise that appeared to have been on the shelves undisturbed for years. Perfect.

The clerk behind the counter was a rotund, 40ish man with a flat-top haircut. He looked up from his magazine, welcomed me to the establishment, and returned to his reading.

Before long, I spotted a colorful piece of Mexican Talavera pottery high on a shelf. It was a small vase, about seven inches tall. Quite attractive and a functional size.

I took it down and checked the price tag. Ten bucks. I had no idea what I would do with it, but I liked it. Sold.

For the next few minutes, I browsed around the store, but nothing else caught my eye, so I took the vase to the cash register.

The clerk took my money and reached under the counter for wrapping material. He came up empty.

“Mama!” he yelled toward the back of the store.

“What?” Mama replied from somewhere out of sight.

“We got any bubble wrap back there? Ain’t none up here!”

“No, we’re out! I ordered some!”

“But I got a pot to wrap! It’s fragile!”

After a pause, Mama yelled, “Go back to the storage room and look in the closet! Papa’s things from the nursing home are on the shelf! Look in that big white box! There’s wrapping material in there!”

“Okay, Mama!” The clerk picked up the vase and departed.

A few minutes later, he returned and handed me a bulging, oblong package. He had wrapped the vase in the material, which was surprisingly thick and dense, added a double layer of plastic bags, and taped it up.

I thanked him, returned to the RV, found a safe spot for the package, and resumed my journey.

I didn’t think about the vase again until 10 days later, when I arrived home and was unpacking the RV.

Ah, yes, I recalled, the Talavera vase from Texas. The one protected by the substitute bubble wrap. I placed the package on the bed and unwrapped it.

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Highlight 2 — The Raisin at Mather Point

Mather Point is one of 20 viewpoints along the South Rim of Grand Canyon. Being the closest viewpoint to the entrance station, and to the visitor center, Mather is the first stop for most of the hordes of tourists when they arrive at the canyon.

Most of the year, the place is a zoo, which is why I usually skip Mather in favor of other viewpoints. But when I arrived at South Rim Village on day seven of my trip, the Mather parking lot was unusually empty. I decided to stop.

The day was sunny, but windy and cold. Shades, gloves, and a hat were in order. I proceeded to do what I always do at Grand Canyon: take photographs of scenery I’ve already documented thoroughly on previous trips. I can’t help myself.

As I fired away, a raven, a particularly fat and handsome one, flew in and landed on a nearby rock.

Ravens are a common sight at Grand Canyon, especially where tourists congregate and leave things to eat in their wake. The birds are quite intelligent and are known to work in teams; one will squawk and dance to distract the tourists while another darts in to snatch an apple core or candy wrapper.

The raven at Mather that morning was only 10 feet away from the tourists, but safely out of reach beyond the safety railing.

All 20-25 tourists at the viewpoint took note and studied the raven with interest. The bird appeared to do the same in return. I proceeded to take photos of the raven as it assessed the food situation, strutting and looking hither and yon.

To my right, a child’s voice rang out.

“Mama! Mama! Look! A raisin!”

It was a boy of about five, bouncing with excitement and pointing at the raven.

“It’s called a raven, Eli. It’s like a crow or a blackbird.”

“Yeah, a raisin! I hope he don’t fly away!”

“Son, it’s ray-VEN. Ray-VEN. Not ray-ZEN.”

The raven chose that moment to squawk loudly, which delighted young Eli.

“Mama, that raisin is talking to me! Squawk, squawk, raisin! Squawk! Squawk!”

The raven answered in its signature deep, throaty croak. Eli responded with his best little-kid imitation.

The conversation continued a bit longer than I expected. But finally, the bird concluded that no food was to be had from the humans at Mather Point, and he flew away to look elsewhere.

“Goodbye, raisin!” Eli sobbed, choking back tears as he waved to the receding bird.

Then he broke down crying and ran to his mama’s arms.

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Highlight 3 — The Canyon Gods

On day eight of my trip, a storm rolled into Grand Canyon from the west. At first, the blustery clouds made for dramatic photos, but then the rain began in earnest, and visibility was reduced to nothing.

That afternoon, I was trapped for half an hour inside Desert View Watchtower, 400 yards from the parking lot, waiting for a rather alarming deluge to subside.

By the morning of day nine, the storm had cleared out, and the rain ended. But that afternoon, another front came in, this time bringing heavy snow up from Flagstaff.

At 4:00 PM, I went to the General Store, bought a deli sandwich for supper, and, with some concern, retreated to my campsite at Trailer Village. That evening, I hunkered down in the RV and watched cable TV (South Rim Village finally has cell phone reception, too) as the snow piled up outside.

By morning, the sun was out again. The park roads had been graded overnight, and the remaining snow was beginning to melt. I checked out of the campground and drove out East Rim Drive toward the park exit.

One of my favorite overlooks along the east rim is Lipan Point. From there, you get a wonderful view of the Unkar Delta, where the Colorado River makes a dramatic “s” curve, culminating in Unkar Rapid at the base of a sheer cliff 400 feet high.

When I stopped at Lipan Point, I was delighted. I had the overlook all to myself.

I was further delighted by what I saw when I stepped to the railing:

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Wow, I thought. Wow.

Being at Grand Canyon is awesome enough. What could possibly make the experience better?

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I’m a huge fan of Grand Canyon and a regular visitor. I’ve been there 24 times, which is pretty excessive for a fellow from Georgia. I’ve seen the canyon in every season and in every conceivable kind of weather.

I’ve seen it from the South Rim, from the North Rim, and from both ends. I’ve seen it from the air, from the plateaus halfway down, and from river level. I’ve backpacked it, day-hiked it, rafted it, and ridden the mules.

But in all my trips to Grand Canyon, this was my first rainbow.

I stayed at the overlook for a long time, savoring the moment. I studied the color bands, watched the roiling clouds in the distance, listened to the wind whistling through the rocks, enjoyed the solitude.

River guides say that the success of a raft trip depends on how the River Gods judge you. Be nice, and the trip will go well; be a jerk, and they will punish you for it.

Maybe I was good, and I pleased the Canyon Gods, and the rainbow was my reward.

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In my next post, one more highlight from the drive home: a stop in Hatch, New Mexico.

 

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Before I get to the post, a brief note…

I started Mr. Write’s Page on February 3, 2009, nearly six years ago. My first post was a story about pet goats wreaking havoc in my neighborhood.

Back then, I had no idea how long I would keep the blog going, or would want to. But so far, I still feel compelled to speak up about stuff, and I have no problem finding material. Plus, I enjoy the hell out of it.

Okay, fine. But, why, in December 2014, do I harken back to the beginning of this blog? Because the nice folks at WordPress keep precise statistics, and you are reading my 1,000th post on Mr. Write’s Page.

Pretty cool.

And now, on with the blog story.

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A few weeks ago, the polar vortex discharged an arctic blast in this direction, and the weather forecast for where I live was grim: lows in the 20s, highs about 40.

Okay, that isn’t horribly terrible, but I wasn’t ready for it. In Georgia, winter isn’t supposed to arrive for real until the first of the year. I was still in the frame of mind for shorts and sandals. I wanted none of it.

So, I packed a bag, checked Paco into the doggie spa, strapped my kayak to the roof of the car, and drove to Florida.

I had been thinking about going south for a kayak trip anyway. North and Central Florida are loaded with rivers and springs that are great places to paddle, at any time of the year.

Last March, for example, I went kayaking at Crystal River, where the manatee herds congregate. The weather was perfect, the trip sublime.

So anyhoo, with the arctic blast on my heels, I drove south on I-75 with a goal of outrunning the cold weather and enjoying a couple of balmy days on the water.

As it happened, I didn’t outrun it. The cold front followed me deep into Florida. When I stopped for the night in Ocala, the news media and the citrus industry were freaking out about the cold.

The next morning, I was pretty alarmed, too. I walked outside to find overcast skies, a brisk wind, and a temp of 28 degrees. That, plus the car and the kayak were covered with a thin, but very real layer of ice.

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At that moment, a day of paddling didn’t sound too appealing.

But it was okay. The cold spell was spent. Afternoon highs would be back in the 60s. All I had to do was wait.

By mid-morning, I arrived at my destination, Manatee Springs State Park, ready to do my thing.

The park is located in north-central Florida, where the Panhandle meets the Peninsula, not far inland from the Gulf of Mexico. That region, where the coast curves and turns south, is sometimes called “the armpit of Florida.” You can draw your own conclusion about that.

Manatee Springs is a “first-magnitude” (high-flow) spring. The water emerges at a constant 72 degrees and flows into the Suwanee River, which passes a few hundred yards from the spring. 30 miles downstream, the river meets the Gulf at Cedar Key.

The park gets its name from the manatees that, in the colder months, swim upriver to bask in the warm water flowing from the spring.

In the warmer months, Manatee Springs is a teeming mass of humanity. Hoards of tourists gather there to swim and paddle in the crystal clear water. Frequently, the parking lots fill up and the gates are closed. When someone leaves, the next carload of visitors is allowed to enter.

But in the off-season, such as November after a spell of cold weather, you can count the tourists in the park on one hand. The day I was there, I was the only kayaker.

That was fine with me. When it comes to non-whitewater kayaking, silence and solitude are the big attractions. That day, it was just me, the shorebirds, and the manatees.

And I’m here to tell ya, the place is incredibly clean, serene, and beautiful.

From the put-in at the spring, I slowly paddled down the run to the Suwannee River. For the next few hours, I explored both sides of the river, upstream and down.

Along the banks were a scattering of homes, some new and opulent, some old and modest, and several boat docks, but I saw not a single soul.

The only other vessel on the river was a small motorboat with two local fishermen, trying their luck along the east bank.

As predicted, the day was sunny, calm, and 65-plus degrees. I drifted, paddled, and drifted some more. I tied the kayak to a cypress knee while I ate a ham sandwich for lunch. It was idyllic. Blissful. Restorative.

At the source, the spring was lined with Cyprus trees beginning to show fall color.

At the source, the spring was lined with Cyprus trees beginning to show fall color.

Water from the spring flows down a 1/4-mile run into the Suwannee River.

Water from the spring flows down a 1/4-mile run into the Suwannee River.

This far south, the Suwannee River is slow and wide. The clear spring water quickly blends into the tea-colored river.

This far south, the Suwannee River is slow and wide. The clear spring water quickly blends into the tea-colored river.

Way down upon the Suwannee River.

Way down upon the Suwannee River.

Two turtles surface to check me out.

Two turtles surface to check me out.

Water hyacinth, an invasive species, grows in profusion along the river bank, including the inlet in the distance, where the spring discharges into the river.

Water hyacinth, an invasive species, grows in profusion along the river bank, including the inlet in the distance, where the spring discharges into the river.

At the mouth of the spring run was a group of manatees — two large adults, two juveniles, and two four-foot babies. As long as I drifted quietly, they tolerated me just fine.

This video tells the story.

I was, of course, taking photos constantly, using my camera and my cell phone, both of which I kept in easy reach.

The cell phone was in front of me inside the open deck bag. The camera (a small Canon Powershot) was at my feet, on the floor of the kayak, on a folded golf towel.

On the water, kayaks drift in unwanted directions as soon as you stop paddling. So, I would pick up the camera, take a photo or video, and quickly drop the camera onto the towel so I could get back to paddling.

Although I didn’t know it until I got home and reviewed the photos and videos, it appears that on two occasions, I dropped the camera onto the towel from too great a height, causing the shutter release to fire accidentally.

The first time, the camera took a photo straight up from the floor of the kayak, with me as the subject:

Suwannee-8

Remarkably, the shot is in focus and relatively well composed. The ivory-colored curly thing is my paddle leash.

Wait. There’s more.

A few minutes later, as I was paddling back toward the take-out point near the spring, I dropped the camera onto the towel — and again accidentally triggered the shutter release. And this time, the camera was in video mode.

The accidental video shows me paddling for a few seconds, then reaching down for the camera, then holding it in up and composing a shot of the spring, then pressing the shutter release — which, of course, stopped the recording.

Wait. There’s more.

Back at the take-out, I beached the kayak and secured my gear. I put the paddle in its holder on the side of the deck, zipped up the deck bag, and prepared to get out.

Then — oops — I remembered the camera on the floor of the boat. I picked it up, placed it in the left pocket of my paddling jacket, and proceeded to disembark.

As I leaned over to do that, I felt the camera slip from my pocket. I heard the kerplunk as it hit the water.

Wide-eyed, I looked over the left side of the boat, down through eight inches of crystal-clear spring water, and saw the camera at rest on the sandy bottom. Tiny bubbles of air were rising from the housing.

Then my left hand flashed down, seized the camera, and brought it dripping to the surface.

That night at my motel, upon further inspection, I sadly concluded that the camera was, in fact, officially kaput. Toast. History.

The battery, being a sealed unit, was fine. So was the SD card. I may have lost a perfectly good camera, but at least the day’s photos and videos survived unscathed.

And, optimist that I am, I chose to look on the bright side: I was free to go out and buy a replacement camera (the latest and most advanced Powershot) with a clear conscience.

 

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“Fang, Where You At?”

I just got back from one of my periodic road trips. Every month or two, I load up my RV Old Blue and head out for a few days, just because I can.

This time, it was a leisurely drive from Panama City west along the Gulf coast. I took my time, walked on the beach, strolled along the docks, took photos, ate seafood. The weather was idyllic.

The trip had its high points, as do they all.

In Panama City, I went to see the house where I lived in the 1950s, during junior high school. The old place has been renovated and looks really good.

In Alabama, I took the 30-minute car ferry ride across the mouth of Mobile Bay. The ferry was escorted by assorted dolphins and swarms of seabirds.

And, in Mississippi, I took my first-ever ride through the swamp on an airboat. You know, one of these things:

Gator-1

The experience was as wild and as loud as I expected.

The Gulf coast turns swampy west of Mobile Bay, and all along coastal Mississippi and Louisiana, airboat tours are everywhere. They all claim to offer the best and most exciting airboat rides on earth. That being the case, I chose one at random, and it worked out fine.

The place I picked was Gulf Coast Gator Ranch in Moss Point, Mississippi.

Gator-2

In addition to airboat tours, they offer a self-guided tour of the “gator ranch,” which is a fenced compound full of hundreds of alligators of all sizes.

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Gator-4

For the gators, the ranch is a sweet deal. They have plenty of space in which to live and socialize, and they all get fed regularly. True, humans are constantly hovering nearby, but the people are fenced in and don’t pose a threat.

The airboat ride was a blast. The craft, which held the operator (a friendly fellow named Rob) and five tourists, was spacious, lightweight, stable, and very agile.

Gator-5

Rob gave us a few instructions as we eased away from the dock. The six of us donned our ear protectors, we reached open water, and Rob gunned it.

I wasn’t worried that the craft might flip, but the possibility certainly occurred to me. The airboat was going crazy fast, cutting trails through the marsh grass, making tight circles around the mud bars, and sending out rooster tails of swamp water as we banked hither and yon.

Rob was performing the nautical equivalent of doing donuts and leaving rubber. He stopped short of popping a wheelie.

I was trying to protect my camera from the spray, so I didn’t turn around to see, but I’m sure he had a huge grin on his face.

Finally, in a narrow channel next to a railroad trestle, Rob brought the airboat to a stop. He cut the engine. We all took off our ear protectors.

Rob stood up and bellowed, “Nuisance! Nuisance, old gal! Where you at?”

Thirty yards away, next to the trestle in a small cove, an alligator slid into the water and headed our way.

“Here she comes,” said Rob. “Nuisance is an adult female, about nine feet long. This inlet is her spot. She staked it out last year.”

Rob reached behind his seat and emerged with a bag of marshmallows. “Come on, Nuisance!” he yelled again. “Hoo, girl! Come and get it!”

When Nuisance was within 15 yards of the boat, Rob tossed a marshmallow into the water. Nuisance cruised forward and deftly glommed it up.

Gator-6

After feeding Nuisance several more marshmallows, Rob pointed out a second gator in the distance on the far side of the trestle.

“Over there, that’s Big Mac,” he told us. “He’s been hangin’ around for about a week. Nuisance don’t like it one bit.”

Rob yelled out for Big Mac to come get his marshmallows. Big Mac slipped into the water and came toward us. As he did, Nuisance retreated a discrete distance from the boat.

“Right now, the weather is warmer than usual,” said Rob, “So Mac thinks it’s matin’ season. Nuisance knows better, but Mac is confused.”

Gator-7

“You’re confused, ain’t you boy?” said Rob. He tossed a marshmallow into the water. Big Mac picked it off with practiced efficiency.

Several marshmallows later, Rob cranked the engine, and we donned our ear protection, and the airboat was off for another wild ride.

At one point, I gingerly lifted the protector away from one ear to check the level of the engine noise. I covered my ear again immediately.

A few minutes later, Rob stopped the airboat in another channel opposite a small cove. He stood up and cupped his hands around his mouth.

“Hoo, Fang!” he hollered. “Fang, where you at? Come on out, boy!”

Moments later, the grass swayed on the bank of the cove, and an alligator, this one noticeably larger than Nuisance and Big Mac, slipped silently into the water and swam toward us.

“We call him Fang ’cause he’s snaggle-toothed. Lost a few teeth at some point,” said Rob. “He’s an old fella. Been here a long time.”

Fang arrived next to the boat and collected a marshmallow. As he cruised alongside us in pursuit of another one, Rob reached down and patted Fang on the top of his massive head.

“Gators like bein’ patted and scratched on the top of their heads,” said Rob. “It relaxes ’em.”

“Fang, come over here, boy!” Rob yelled. Fang swam alongside the boat.

“Roll over, boy! Roll over on your side and show me them teeth!”

Fang rolled onto his side and executed what I can only describe as a grimace, his jaws slightly apart and his teeth on full display.

“Attaboy!” said Rob. He reached down and, much as I would affectionately scratch my dog, he rubbed and patted Fang on the belly. “Yeah, look at dem big shiny teeth!” he cooed.

“I can’t believe you’re doing that!” said one of the passengers. “That alligator could bite your hand off!”

“Fang?” Rob replied in mock dismay. “Fang wouldn’t hurt me! Me and him is pals!”

“But he’s a wild gator!”

“Well, Fang has been here a long time, and he ain’t that wild any more.” said Rob. “I trust him. He knows me, knows I won’t hurt him. I bring him snacks, and we keep him well fed. I ain’t worried about Fang.”

“On the other hand,” he added, “You didn’t see me puttin’ my hand anywhere near Big Mac or Nuisance.”

After another high-speed ride through the swamp, Rob took us back to Gator Ranch. With the drive in neutral, he ran the engine at full throttle. The tremendous wash of air caused us to drift sideways into place against the dock.

I walked next to him up the long pathway back to the office.

“I haven’t seen any ‘you-drive-it’ airboat rentals,” I said. “That must mean they take practice to operate.”

“They sure do,” he said. “You know that lady inside who took your money? Last year, she was pesterin’ us to learn to drive. The first time, she got stuck in the mud. The second time, she blew out the engine. There wadn’t no third time.”

Back at the ranch, Rob assembled his five passengers and asked, “Any of y’all ever held a baby gator?”

Nope.

He opened the lid of a large cooler, reached inside, and brought out a docile, two-foot-long alligator with a rubber band around its jaws. He handed the gator to the nearest tourist.

“Dang,” said the tourist, “He feels cold, like a snake.”

“What’s his name?” asked another.

“We don’t name the little ones,” said Rob.

When my turn came to hold the unnamed gator, Rob asked for my camera. This is the shot he took.

Gator-8

 

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My previous post was about a boat tour I took earlier this month into the beautiful and fascinating Atchafalaya Basin, a sprawling wetland in southern Louisiana. The trip was a mere two hours long, but it was enough to give me the flavor of the place and make me resolve to go back another time and explore further.

My tour guide that day was Captain Don, a jovial Cajun fellow who regaled us passengers with (1) fascinating facts about the history and inhabitants of the Atchafalaya and (2) Cajun jokes.

Specifically, Captain Don introduced us to Boudreaux and Thibodeaux, the central characters of much Cajun humor. Boudreaux and Thibodeaux are a disreputable, but lovable duo whose antics get them into constant trouble.

The jokes, of course, are universal. But, when told by a Cajun about Cajuns, they have an undeniable panache.

Every time Captain Don reeled off a joke, I quietly made a note, so I could reconstruct the tale later. As it turned out, he told quite a few. That’s why I felt obliged to make this report a two-parter.

Here are the jokes Captain Don told us…

AB-6

Boudreau is drivin’ in da city one day, all in a sweat. He got a very important meetin’, and he can’t find a parking place.

Lookin’ up to Heaven he says, “Lord, take pity on me! If you find me a parkin’ place, ah will go to Mass every Sunday for the rest of ma life, and ah’ll never take another drink as long as ah live!”

Like a miracle, a parkin’ place appears around de next corner.

Boudreau looks up at Heaven again and says, “Never mind, Lord, ah found one.”

AB-7

Thibodeaux is layin’ on his deathbed with only a few days to live. He calls his wife Clotile to his side and says, “Make me a promise, Clotile. Swear to me dat after ah’m dead and gone, you will marry Boudreaux.”

“Boudreaux?” she exclaims. “You always say you hate Boudreaux, ’cause he’s low down and no good, and you wish nuttin’ but BAD on him!”

Thibodeaux says, “Yeah, ah do.”

AB-8

One day, Boudreaux and Thibodeaux fly north to Yankee country on vacation. As dey come in for a landin’, Boudreaux yells at Thibodeaux, “Pull up! Pull up! We’re at de end of de runway!”

So Thibodeaux pulls up and goes around for another try. As he attempts another landin’, Boudreaux yells at him again. “Pull up! Pull up! We’re at de end of de runway already!”

Thibodeaux pulls back on da stick and goes around again. As he comes in for a third try, he says to Boudreaux, “You know, dese Yankees is pretty stupid! Dey made dis runway way too short, but look at how wide it is!”

AB-9

Pierre is drinkin’ at de bar, when Thibodeaux comes in. “Pierre, you heard the news?” says Thibodeaux. “Boudreaux is dead!”

“That’s terrible!” says Pierre. “What happened to him?”

“Well, Boudreaux was on his way over to my house the other day, and when he arrived, his foot missed da brake pedal, and BOOM — he hit da curb! He crash troo da windshield, go flying troo de air, and smash troo my upstairs bedroom window!”

“What a horrible way to die!” says Pierre.

“No no, dat didn’t kill him! He survived dat!

“So, he’s lyin’ on the floor, all covered in broken glass, and he tries to pull hisself up on dat big old antique chifferrobe we got, and BANG — da chifferrobe comes crashing down on top of him!”

“Mais, that’s terrible!”

“No no, dat didn’t kill him! He survived dat!

“So, he gets de chifferrobe off him, and he crawls out onto da landin’, and he tries to pull hisself up on de han’rail! But de han’rail breaks, and BAM — Boudreaux fall down da stairs to da first floor!”

“Dat’s sure an awful way to go!”

“No no, dat didn’t kill him! Boudreaux, he even survived dat!

“So, he’s downstairs, and he crawls into de kitchen and tries to pull hisself up on de stove! But he tips over a big pot of hot gumbo, and whoosh — da whole thing come down on him and burn him real bad!”

“Thibodeaux, dat’s an awful way to die!”

“No no, he survived dat too!”

“Wait — hold on now! Just how did Boudreaux die?”

“Ah shot him!”

“You shot him? Why you shoot him?”

“Mais, he was wreckin’ mah house!”

AB-10

Boudreaux is workin’ on his cabane, which is what we call a cabin in dese parts, when his little grandson runs in.

“Papaw,” says da boy, “How far away is California? How far is California, Papaw?”

Boudreaux answers, “Boy, ah don’t know! Go away, now, ’cause ah’m busy!”

A few minutes later, here comes de boy again. “Papaw! Make a noise like a frog! Make a noise like a frog, Papaw!”

Boudreaux yells, “Boy can’t you see ah’m workin’? Get on outta here, like ah tol‘ ya!”

Da boy goes outside, but he stays near de door, lookin’ in at Boudreaux.

Finally, Boudreaux stops what he’s doin’ and says, “Boy, why you wanna know all dat?”

Da boy says, “‘Cause Mamaw told us — when Papaw finally croaks, we goin’ to California!”

AB-11

One mornin’, Boudreaux goes fishin’, and he’s doin’ real fine until da game warden pops up. Da game warden been watchin’ from the bushes, and he waits ’till Boudreaux catches a mess of fish. Den he steps out and says, “Ok, boy, lemme see dat fishin’ license!”

Well, Boudreaux, he ain’t GOT no fishin’ license, so da game warden arrest him and take him to court.

Da judge looks at da charges, and says, “Boudreaux, you got a clean record, son. You ain’t never been in dis court before.”

“Das right, Judge,” Boudreaux says. “Ah ain’t never been caught till now.”

“How ’bout dis?” says the judge. “If you promise to get a fishin’ license and not break the law no more, ah’ll let you go.”

Da game warden lets out a howl of protest. “Dat ain’t fair, Judge!” he yells. “Boudreaux, he do dis all da time, but he always get away! I finally catch him, and you lettin’ him go?”

“Well,” says da judge, “Maybe he done learned his lesson. Have ya, Boudreaux?”

“You bet ah have, Judge,” says Boudreaux.

So da judge slams down his gavel and tells Boudreaux he’s free to go. Da game warden turns to de judge and says, “Judge, what about dis? One time, ah came up on Boudreaux in de swamp, and he done cooked and eat a brown pelican, da Louisiana state bird!”

“Is dat true, Boudreaux?” says da judge.

Boudreaux stops at de courtroom door and turns back and says, “Yes, Judge, ah done what he said, but de bird was already dead, and ah hated to see de meat go to waste!”

Da judge thought for a minute and den says, “Ah’m curious, Boudreaux. What do brown pelican taste like?”

“Funny thing, Judge,” says Boudreaux. “It taste a lot like bald eagle!”

AB-12

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